The following is a guest post by Miles Kahler, senior fellow for global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Recent comments by then President-Elect Donald J. Trump—applauding the breakup of the European Union and declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “obsolete”—appear to confirm his deep skepticism or hostility toward major multilateral organizations. In the Trump worldview, bilateral deal-making among great powers is preferred; regional and multilateral organizations that might constrain the United States are suspect.
Criticism of global institutions is not a novelty in American politics on either the left or the right. The breadth of criticism voiced by Trump and his entourage is new, however, and not only because it originates from a president. A central paradox of Trump’s rhetoric is its combination of claims that the United States has declined from past greatness and an assertion that the United States has unexploited bargaining power left on the table by his predecessors. Global institutions are not viewed as instruments of American power (as they are in much of the rest of the world), but as restraints on the untrammeled exercise of that power. “Globalism” and its institutional supports, which have promoted a more open world economy, are tilted against the United States—even though the United States designed and promoted those institutions.
Will this vision of American power, which appears set to marginalize or disrupt existing global institutions, be implemented by the new administration? Those who argue for continuity rather than rupture rely on the constraints of the global economy and the relative fragility of Trump’s political coalition. Whatever the bias of the Trump administration, the world economy continues to present problems that will demand solutions, and those solutions will often require multilateral negotiations and forums. Cross-border data flows, for example, have burgeoned in recent years, even as the growth of world trade has slowed. Regulation of those flows and coordination of national data policies remain a large gap in world trade architecture. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) innovated by incorporating rules governing those flows. Although Trump has withdrawn from the TPP, the demand for such rules will persist. The international economy could also move the Trump administration toward a more favorable stance in another way: crisis. As Edward Truman has suggested, crisis focuses minds on solutions that will likely involve the major multilaterals.
The support for Trump’s views on global institutions is also politically fragile, despite the power of the presidency. Divergent views have been expressed by his own cabinet nominees, and congressional Republicans have long tilted toward support for liberalizing trade agreements. Despite political polarization, which has awarded more support for Trump’s views within the Republican electorate, public support overall for the United Nations and other international organizations and agreements—NATO, the Paris climate change agreement, and even the International Criminal Court, which the United States has not joined—remains strong.
Rather than waiting complacently for these constraints to bind the Trump administration, however, internationalists should act on several fronts. Although the initial coalition behind Trump’s policies toward global governance is narrow, internationalists can work to broaden and deepen their own base of support. Arguments in favor of global governance are unlikely to shake the new president’s longstanding beliefs, but some could resonate: for example, most effective institutions have, at their core, a forum for great power bargaining, whether it is the UN Security Council or the Executive Boards of the Bretton Woods institutions.
Internationalists should also turn to their own fractured coalition. Apart from national governments, the global agenda has been set in recent years by internationally active corporations on the one hand and international nongovernmental organizations on the other. These two sets of actors have often combatted one another, but on issues such as climate change and human rights, their cooperation has increased over the past decade. Now, in the face of nationalist and insular political forces, they may find even more common ground to act creatively in defense of economic openness, inclusive growth, and international collaboration.
The greatest failing of internationalists, left and right, however, has been their predominant outward orientation. They have taken for granted the broad foundation of domestic support that remains among the public at large. Two cracks in that foundation require immediate attention. The chain of delegation to global institutions is long and mysterious—and therefore prone to conspiracy theories and populist attack. The processes of global negotiation and governance, already more transparent than they were a few decades ago, must be opened to greater legislative and public scrutiny. Benefits—both material and moral—of the global architecture must be promoted actively since the presidential bully pulpit may be directed at undermining these institutions.
The second fault line is lack of attention to the domestic political and economic costs imposed by the existing international order. Proponents of globalization have too often assumed that those who have paid the costs of the liberal international order would somehow be compensated. Programs of compensation, however, were labeled domestic; for the internationally oriented, “not their department.” Without domestic initiatives that turn to the difficult issue of economic and social adjustment, whether caused by trade, migration, financial flows, or technological change, global governance—identified with globalization—will share the blame. Although national and domestic policies must play the largest role, global and regional institutions can contribute substantially in preventing and cushioning externally generated shocks. Successive shocks—China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the global financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, and the surge of refugees to Europe in 2015—have set the stage for the political backlash that now besets global governance. National governments must compensate and assist those dislocated, but effective global governance can lower the probability and cost of those shocks.
The Trump administration calls into question U.S. support for the pillars of global governance. The immediate and unfamiliar task of the internationalists who uphold this endangered architecture is ensuring that its processes are transparent, its benefits are widely distributed, and its contributions to everyday well-being are documented and appreciated.